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Monday, July 26, 2004

Back in May, I wrote about a queer friend who was going before an "ecclesiastical council" to be approved for ordination in the United Church of Christ. Several folks asked for updates as the process went along.


Well, I'm happy to say that David Stiffler was approved for ordination, which took place yesterday afternoon.


It was, by David's own admission, the "gayest ordination ever." I countered that I would appear in my flame-red chasuble so he wouldn't have to be the gayest man in the room. He threatened to up the ante by wearing a tiara, but it never materialized.


I counted 40 people involved in the worship service, including the ordinand, myself, and Mrs. Pastor. And that's not even counting the bell choir!


We had ten musical offerings; we had three congregational hymns. We had two liturgical dances; we had one presentation by a sign language interpreter and one message recorded beforehand by David because he couldn't trust himself not to cry while presenting it. We had prayers, we had scripture and a sermon, we had a laying on of hands, we had communion and a ritual presentation of gifts. Finally, we had a dinner with fried chicken, two kinds of cold salad, fruit and ice cream. Everyone kept commenting on how this was like a wedding, and it really was.


The service took about two hours, which is somewhere between thirty and sixty minutes longer than average.


If you've never been to one of these affairs, allow me a long description. First all the pastors put on their robes and process into the sanctuary. In our case, that was about thirty people, only about half of whom were counted in the participants' list above. For a while, the worship service more or less follows the basic Sunday morning pattern: there's a greeting and a call to worship, prayer of confession, scripture and a sermon. We read together the UCC Statement of Faith.


It's at this point that the service begins to differ. There are some boring prayers and liturgy, then the ordinand (unlike Catholics and Methodists, we typically ordain people one at a time) is given a ritual examination, in which he or she promises to uphold the duties of being a pastor. Then the congregation, the assembled people of God, are asked what their will is: do we ordain this person or not.


The response is typically joyful: "By the grace of God, he is worthy! Let us ordain him. Come, Holy Spirit!" The congregation did not disappoint.


Following this comes the "laying on of hands." There are many ways of doing this, but typically in the UCC, the ordinand kneels and is surrounded by members of the clergy and/or the entire congregation, who...ah...lay hands on him or her, and pray that the Holy Spirit might come upon him. This is an emotionally powerful moment, both for those participating, and especially for the ordinand. I've been through this myself; it feels as though the prayers and love of the whole people of God have been transformed into an immense crushing weight on your head and shoulders. It is both awe-ful and awesome, love come to life in a tangible way.


A few more prayers, and the ordinand is presented with the symbols of office: a Bible, a traveling communion set, a certificate of ordination. When I was ordained, the Association (the ordaining body) gave me a framed copy of the Rights and Responsibilities of an Ordained Minister. I guess they don't do that anymore.


Ah, but the best was yet to come. The new minister is presented with a stole, representing Christ's yoke. In this case, David's partner Tom hung the stole on David's shoulders, and they exchanged a very chaste hug. David tried to stifle a sob or two, and I don't think there was a dry eye or throat unchoked in the house as he did so.


In this case, David was "installed" into his office, which means formally received into his job. Following the installation, he celebrated communion with one of his seminary professors. Mrs. Pastor held a glass of wine next to David as they distributed the elements. She told me later she had a hard time not crying as she stood there, she was so proud of him. She wasn't at my ordination.


Well, the whole thing was wonderful. There were something like 125-150 people there, above average for such an affair. There were black folks and white, Asians (dunno about Hispanics), gay, straight, babies and grandmothers, at least three or four denominations (including the MCC), just about everything under the sun.


What there weren't: protestors. If anybody knew where this was taking place, they shouldn't didn't seem to care. Nobody said "boo" the entire time. David, as I said when I wrote back in May, will make a wonderful pastor for the right congregation, and everybody in the room that day agreed. To paraphrase our Area Conference Minister (the "boss," such as it is, of us pastors), David was trailblazing history by his ordination, and there was no better time or place for him to do that than right now and with us.


To which I can only add: Amen.

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